By Esteban Medel
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Scientists seeking to increase the dwindling population of Chile's national animal, the shy Huemul deer, have released their first captive-bred pair into the wild in a pivotal step in the drive to save the endangered species from extinction.
The Huemul, which appears on the Chilean national coat of arms along with the Andean condor, has a total population of less than 1,500, concentrated in the southern reaches of Chile and Argentina including in Chile's well-known Torres del Paine national park.
Now, conservationists in the Huilo Huilo national park, 130 miles (210 km) south of the southern city of Temuco in the Los Rios region, are seeking to increase its numbers with the first successful captive breeding program.
Fernando Vidal, forest wildlife director of the Huilo Huilo Foundation conservation group, said a breeding pair brought from another region of the country and released into the forest on Saturday represented the best hope for the revival of the species.
"Three years ago we tentatively released some males into the wild to see how they would fare in the forest environment," Vidal told Reuters TV. "Now, for the first time, we have released a breeding pair into the forest, which represents a new milestone, a new stage and a new possibility for the survival of the species."
The Huemul, which has donkey-like ears and a dark stripe on its snout, is classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because of illegal hunting and encroachment by residential and agricultural development.
(Reporting by Esteban Medel; Writing by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Will Dunham)